Chapter 8: Lifespan Development of Human Potential

Adolescence and Adulthood

Adolescence: Preparing for Adulthood

Anatomy is destiny.

Love and work… work and love, that’s all there is.

Sigmund Freud


“Sex, drugs, and rock & roll”

Life Magazine, 1969


Congratulations, your child has made it to Piaget’s formal operations and Kohlberg’s conventional moral stages and is a trusting, independent, guilt-free, industrious teenager. Erikson’s fifth stage takes place during the middle-school and high-school years. This period can include substantial peer-pressure as students compare their physical appearance, school performance, personal characteristics, and personal possessions with others. Erikson is perhaps most famous for coining the term “ identity crisis ” to refer to the characteristic questioning of one’s personal qualities, goals, and social roles during his fifth developmental stage. Parental tensions between the desire to protect one’s child and the need to foster independence can result in an increase in the frequency and intensity of conflicts and arguments during this stage. It is tempting to volunteer suggestions or to impose solutions on a teenager struggling with identity issues. Peers are replacing parents as the primary role models and sources of reinforcement. Personal choices can have significant impacts upon the course of one’s life and pose significant dangers. It is a period marked by experimentation with hobbies, jobs, grooming habits, dress styles, sexual practices, alcohol, drugs, music and media, religious participation, and political beliefs. Negotiating the fine line between helpful guidance (scaffolding) and interference, is difficult for parents as the teenager struggles to attain a unique identity. Non-requested suggestions or attempts to enforce restrictions can result in identity confusion.

James Marcia (1966) developed a model addressing Erikson’s identity crisis. Marcia distinguished between four different identity states based on two considerations; had exploration occurred and had a commitment been made. The four possibilities are portrayed in the following video:

Watch the following video describing Marcia’s stages of identity development:

Identity issues could include relationships (friends and/or romantic partners), gender roles, religion, politics, interest in attending higher education, future vocation, etc. As implied by Erikson, it is desirable that the adolescent be exposed to and permitted to explore various options for each of these issues. Only then, could the adolescent make an informed decision regarding whether to commit to a particular choice, thereby attaining identity achievement. If commitment occurs without the ability to explore options (e.g., a parent’s making the decision regarding a romantic partner or future career) identity foreclosure occurs. Moratorium refers to the continual stage of exploring prior to making a commitment. Identity diffusion occurs when one never addresses identity issues or commits to a specific choice.

Freud remains current in his observation that the human condition includes the two major developmental tasks of preparing for love and work. The beginning of adolescence is demarcated by the onset of puberty as males and females gradually become physically capable of reproduction. Associated is the development of a new and powerful basic drive. The Nukak have no reason to discourage sexuality or delay child-bearing. As soon as males and females are ready, they pair off and usually form monogamous relationships. Living in the low-density population rainforest means that there are very few available potential mates. This has its advantages (e.g., a relatively simple and low-stress “courtship” period) and disadvantages (extremely limited choice).

We live very different lives than the Nukak as the result of centuries of civilization and available technologies. Industrialization resulted in people moving from predominantly rural, low-density population, agricultural lifestyles to urban, high-density population, manufacturing lifestyles. Many of the jobs created were dangerous and some required advanced intellectual skills. This raised the need and desire for compulsory education toward the end of the 19th century. In 1890, 5% of American 14-17 year-olds were enrolled in high school. By 1970, 90% were enrolled (Tanner, 1972). The requirement to attend school meant delaying becoming independent from one’s parents and starting a family. G. Stanley Hall suggested the need for a new developmental stage to refer to this delay period between childhood and adulthood. He called it adolescence (Hall, 1904), derived from the Latin word adolescentem meaning to mature, or grow up.


Congratulations! Thanks to the magic of fast-forward developmental psychology, your pretend child has caught up with you and is a college student. What do you want to be when you grow up? Interestingly, your pretend child catching up with you puts you in a similar situation to your parents. You might be considering what you would like your child to become. Your answers for both yourself and your pretend child probably continue to relate to Freuds’s two major developmental tasks: finding a partner in life; attaining suitable, stimulating, and enjoyable work. Unlike the Nukak, you and your young adult theoretically have an enormous choice of potential life partners and occupations. This is true, even in comparison to relatively recent generations of city dwellers. The internet has introduced globalization to pairing off as well as to the marketplace. We live in a hyper-connected world where geographic distance no longer necessarily limits our opportunities to meet or communicate with others.

The same trend observed with high school attendance also applies to college attendance. In 1890, less than 5% of 18-21 year-olds were enrolled in college. By 1990 this number exceeded 60% (Arnett & Taber, 1994). No doubt this percentage will continue to increase in the future and we will observe similar trends in graduate and post-graduate education. Thanks to machinery reducing the need for physical strength and the availability of contraception, anatomy is not necessarily the dominating force in a woman’s destiny that it was in the past. Opportunities for women enormously expanded during the past two generations as we transitioned to an economy based upon service and information. In 1950, the average age of marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women in the United States. By 2000 these ages had increased to 27 and 25, respectively (Arnett, 2000). Due to the educational requirements of many current vocations in technologically-advanced societies, there is usually the need to delay financial independence from one’s parents and starting a family even longer than when Hall proposed the adolescent developmental stage. Arnett (2000) suggested the need to add emerging adulthood as another developmental phase between the end of adolescence (e.g., graduation from high school at about the age of 18) and adulthood (financial independence, living apart from one’s parents, starting a family, etc.). Arnett found that many college students report feeling “in between” adolescence and adulthood, consistent with considering emerging adulthood an intermediary stage of development. If you were to define yourself as being in a developmental stage, would you consider yourself an adolescent, adult, or emerging adult? What would you consider your pretend student at the start of the freshman year?

Erikson’s sixth through eighth stages consist of young adulthood, middle adulthood, and maturity (see Figure 8.14). In the rainforest, the major developmental transition occurs when children leave their parents’ home to mate and have children. Life in the developed world is marked by minor transitions from elementary- to middle-school and middle-school to high school. Those who fail to graduate high school tend to fare poorly in the increasingly skills- and education-oriented global economy. Even high school graduates can have difficulty finding jobs when there are downturns in the economy. Taking on the responsibilities of adulthood at about 18 years of age necessarily limits ones career (and associated economic) options. The extent of your education will also probably affect whom you find suitable as a mate and vice-versa. If you are attending college, it is likely that your parents considered these economic and social realities in supporting this goal.

As indicated previously, a substantial majority of contemporary high school students go on to college. This almost always results in delaying the start of a career or a family. These students would be considered by Arnett (2000) to be in the emerging adult stage until taking on the responsibilities associated with being an adult. The identity issues characteristic of Erikson’s adolescent stage carry over into emerging adulthood for those attending college and graduate school. Marcia’s (1966) emphasis on the importance of exploring options and making commitments remains appropriate. In addition to being a time to study and advance in your pursuit of a career, it is a time for meeting new potential friends and romantic partners. The commitments you make to a career and romantic partner will have major impacts upon the success and enjoyment you experience during middle adulthood and the likelihood of having disappointments and regrets when you reflect back on your life.

Putting It All Together: Looking Back

As an exercise for ending the human development chapter, I would like you to consider how the material helps you understand the factors which made you the unique person you are. Think of the importance each of the following played at different points of your life:

  • Heredity
  • Health (including nutrition, alcohol, and drugs)
  • Parents and caregivers
  • Siblings
  • Other family members
  • Friends from the sandbox through high school
  • Where you grew up, including community activities and problems
  • Schools
  • Religion
  • Jobs
  • Sports
  • Hobbies
  • Music and the Arts
  • Technology (including cars, computers, cell phones, the internet, etc.)

It might prove meaningful to consider the role each of these played during the ages corresponding to Piaget’s, Kohlberg’s and Erikson’s stages. Previously, I indicated the inappropriateness of considering stage theories as explanations. Information concerning specific genes and experiences is not provided. Stage theories can, however, provide valuable perspectives for describing and understanding the important behavioral changes that appear characteristic of the human condition. This is true whether describing a child growing up in the rain forest or a modern city.

Putting It All Together: Looking Forward

You may also wish to consider how the information in this chapter helps you plan for your future, including the possibility of becoming a parent. Are there implications regarding who you would like to become in the future and for accomplishing your goals? What are the implications of the findings regarding different parenting styles should you decide to trade in your pretend child for the real thing? Major issues you may wish to consider include how to address gender roles, which toys and technologies to introduce, and when and how to introduce them.

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Figures 8.4 and 8.5    Male and female gender roles.


We can consider the implications of transformation of the human condition to the development of human potential. Whether growing up in the rainforest or city, much of a child’s capabilities are increased by genetically influenced growth and neurological changes. Improved observational learning skills and the introduction of speech enables the application of more effective and efficient indirect learning principles. All healthy children possess the potential to adapt to their environment. The pictures of members of the Nukak tribe remind us of the extreme differences in the human condition that currently exist on our planet. The manufactured picture of the changes occurring on Manhattan Island over the past 400 years, dramatically reveals how technology has transformed the natural human condition (i.e., the planet earth) to one created by humans themselves. This may seem like science fiction, but we appear on the verge of creating a third, virtual, human condition. One of the most popular choices for a self-control project in my classes the past few years, has addressed some form of computer or cell phone usage. Contemporary college students are spending substantial parts of their life (i.e., large slices of their personal pie charts) on social networking sites, playing video games, texting, and so on. The virtual community Second Life is popular. For many, it and other internet sites are becoming the person’s first life!

Your generation’s children will be exposed to natural, human-manufactured, and virtual realities from birth (or earlier?). Parents and other caregivers, as always, will need to keep Vygotsky’s principles of the zone of proximal development and scaffolding in mind as they help children adapt to their ever-increasing choices regarding the human condition.

How young is too young?

The following poem by Dorothy Law Nolte (1972), entitled Children Learn What They Live, incorporates much wisdom concerning the importance of a child’s experience to the person the child becomes. No matter what their human condition, this wisdom remains true. Imagine how it would be if all children grew up in a manner consistent with the first three articles from the United Nations General Assembly Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the sentiment of Nolte’s poem.

Watch the following video of Dorothy Law Nolte’s poem, Children Learn What They Live:



Figure 8.4 “Female gender role” by jayhay2336 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Figure 8.5 “Male gender role” by Harrison Weir is in the Public Domain





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Psychology Copyright © by Jeffrey C. Levy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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